Opening The Old Testament
Forgetting Leads to Exile: Reflections on Genesis 28:10-19a
July 20, 2014
Today we confront one of the Torah's most memorable stories, the so-called "Jacob's Ladder." We must always remember that when a story becomes overly familiar, the risks of misreading and a clichéd misappropriation rise considerably. This problem appears to have happened in spades with Jacob at Bethel.
There is first that hymn that many know and have sung at numerous Bible camps, weekend spiritual retreats, and not a few Sunday worship services. I bet more than a few of you have it stuck in your mind right now; for that I am sorry. Quick! Put on Brahms or Pink Floyd (whichever your preference) to drive it out. "We are climbing Jacob's ladder, soldiers of the cross," it goes, representing one of the most potent allegories of the Hebrew Bible that has pervaded our Christian space. "Every rung goes higher, higher," we sing, suggesting that Jacob himself is some sort of model of spiritual growth, since he, after all, saw YHWH at the magic mountain. I admit that I find all of this completely fatuous. Of all the biblical characters I know, Jacob would be the very last one to serve as any sort of model for any human behaviors, let alone any spiritual ones. I mean, have we even read his story?
Then there is the problem of the lectionary choice of the reading of this story. Why in the world, or elsewhere, do they stop at verse 19a? "He called the name of the place Bethel…" So?! What is the upshot of his hearing and seeing YHWH here? Is it merely that he gives the place a new name, a name that means "House of God"? If that is all it means, then what we have is a folk story about why the city of Luz is now called Bethel on account of Jacob's confrontation with his God and his dream of that God. But if we do not read Jacob's vow in verses 20-22, we cannot know what is truly at stake in this passage.
Let's hear something of it again. Jacob is running for his life from his family because he has stolen both birthright and blessing from his doltish brother Esau—the first theft the result of his bargain with Esau, birthright for stew; and the second theft the result of disguise and bold-faced lies in the presence of his dying father. Jacob is far more than trickster here; he is a despicable and disgusting falsifier of the truth! He takes after his mother, who saves his wretched skin by demanding that her favorite boy find a wife back in Haran in order to avoid getting mixed up with the local women, most of whom are Canaanites. Esau has himself just married a couple of them. Of course, the truth is that Esau is furious and has threatened to kill his brother as soon as the old man finds his way to Sheol. Rebekah creates her lie about wives to protect Jacob from an enraged Esau.
So, off he heads east toward Haran across the Jordan and soon finds his way to "a certain place" and stops for the night. He grabs one of the stones of the place and uses it for a pillow; I imagine that rock pillows are conducive to dreaming, if not severe spinal problems. His dream consists of a ladder (perhaps more accurately a ramp or stairway—a Babylonian ziggurat temple may be the right image), the top of which reaches all the way to the very top of the sky. And on the ramp, Jacob sees messengers of God ascending and descending. But most astoundingly Jacob sees YHWH (!) who "stood above it and said, 'I am YHWH, God of Abraham your father, and God of Isaac. The ground on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south, and all the families of the earth will be blessed in you and in your descendants'" (Gen. 28:13-14).
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.